Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: Everything Here is Beautiful

Everything Here is Beautiful Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first, I thought this was going to be an immigrant novel, and it kind of is, but that's more of a background element. Lucy/Lucia moves with her single Chinese pregnant mother to the United States as a young girl. But the story quickly jumps to her adolescence and her first mental disorders surfacing and requiring hospitalization. Her sister tries to help, and the sister relationship is a thread throughout the novel. What if your sister was the only person who knew your medical secrets but lives far away with her own life?

I feel like the author did an interesting thing here. The point of view changes so sometimes the pov is from Lucia, sometimes when she is lucid, but also when she isn't. And the moments that really stuck out to me were those where I was seeing the world from her perspective and her decisions seemed valid, and then it switches to an outsider and you realize that she is acting paranoid, delusional, potentially harmful to her child. It was quite the reminder that for a person suffering from mental illness, it's not that easy for them to see what others see, or to fully understand they need help or medication. I thought it was very effective.

Lucy's second husband is Manny, an undocumented Ecuadorian, and along the way I realized that there are no white people in this novel, pretty awesome. Lucy had spent time in Latin America and at one point they move back there with their child, and I thought that was an unfairly challenging environment for her mental health but adds another interesting twist to the story.

Thanks to the publisher for approving my request in NetGalley. This book comes out January 16th, 2018.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine the historical research approach of someone like David McCullough, and pull those details into a novel that takes place almost entirely in a graveyard, ghosts and all (picture The Graveyard Book), and you have this novel. I was lucky to receive a review copy of the audiobook from the publisher, because I think this is the preferred format for the novel.

Since George Saunders wrote the novel in 108 sections, with distinct voices, they decided to use 166 voices in the recording (Time Magazine did a short profile of the upcoming production, and you can listen to an excerpt on the publisher site.)

Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, along with George Saunders, are three primary voices (although I thought Sedaris was Holly Hunter until after I'd finished, despite having heard him narrate his own books) and a cast of friends, stars, and family fill out the rest. Some voices are heard only one time, reading a letter or fact from what sounds like real sources, and I imagine some are, some aren't. That is a bit confusing in the beginning, until you get into the rhythm of the novel. It's enough to know that you don't need to remember the voices in conjunction with their names, so they can pass through your mind.

Some of the time the multiple voices seem to just be providing context, but often they are playing with the narrative of context, some remembering a full moon, others remembering a cloudy night, others remembering a crescent, etc. These tiny excerpts are often followed by the narrator with an abbreviation I had not heard, so here's a hint: "Op. cit." refers to a longer bibliography or a previously mentioned citation. I wish they had left that out of the audio because I had no idea what it was for most of my listening experience. I had looked up opsit, opsid, oppsid, upsid, and every other combination until I found it. It's a minor thing but gets used so frequently with all the tiny bits, that it drove me to distraction!

Overall the novel is pretty fragmented, and I found I did better in comprehending it when listening for long spans of time, like the five hours I spent in the car yesterday. I am not sure what kind of novel I expected Saunders to write for his first published longer work, but I did not expect something quite so simultaneously historical and experimental!

The highlight for me has to be Nick Offerman though. He is an excellent narrator and now I want to go back and listen to more of his productions. More, please!

ETA: Changed my 4 stars to 5 the more I thought about it.

One more ETA: love or hate it, this sucker just won the Man Booker Prize!

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: Springtime: A Ghost Story

Springtime: A Ghost Story Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this in October because the subtitle makes it sound like a ghost story. And while the character does encounter a mysterious creature, it isn't a ghost story in the traditional sense. It is an interesting tale that includes sometimes funny/biting social observations (but blink and you might miss them), the seeming culture war between Melbourne and Sydney (the clothes Frances wore in Melbourne are ALL WRONG in Sydney), and all the while Frances is noticing things. She notices the flowers and plants, and how different they are. She notices how people interact with one another. And she notices a woman in an old-fashioned dress....

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ordered this for my library but grew impatient and listened to it on Hoopla instead. It is one of the finalists for the 2017 National Book Award (USA.)

This is a book of short stories, all centering around the female body, as evidenced by the title. This would not be a book for anyone who shocks easily, as there is sex, a lot of sex, some of it queer sex, and some of it deals with the aftermath of sexual assault. Some of the themes are disturbing, and the insertion at times of supernatural or fantastical elements make many of the stories feel even more dangerous than real life, or maybe it's that they highlight the danger of real life. The writing is powerful and I would not be surprised to see this win the award, although I'm still slightly more on board with Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Story by story:

The Husband Stitch - This is a retelling of The Girl with the Ribbon Around her Neck, but somehow the husband is more domineering, and the lengthening of the story brings you more into her point of view.

Inventory - A list of sexual encounters inside the context of a world falling apart due to a virus. This might be my favorite!

Mothers - A disturbing story where I couldn't tell what was real and what was not. A baby delivered by her lesbian partner, told "this is your baby," But then she is running through the park after stranger babies...

Especially Heinous - I could not understand what was going on here, and had to stop and look up some info about the book. The author has taken every episode of SVU, the show that focuses on sex crimes, usually against women, and builds an alternative story where women have bell eyes and something supernatural is going on and I just didn't really get it at all. I'm sure if I had any familiarity at all with SVU the characters at least would make sense to me, but this was rough. And since it was in audio, I couldn't tell if this was a series of very short stories (flash stories) or what I was encountering, because the author keeps the title of each episode and then has a paragraph or a sentence after each. I wish it had an intro or something, at least to navigate the audio verison.

Real Women Have Bodies - If women really grew invisible....

Eight Bites - Well I'm not quite sure, but I think this is about weight loss surgery and the sacrifice of thin and what it does to our daughters? It's rather frightening.

The Resident - This one examines whether female writers are allowed to write about themselves the same way male writers are, what makes something art, how much autonomy do you have as a creative person?

Difficult at Parties - A woman has gone through severe trauma and starts hearing the thoughts of actors on film.. and in the background, a spouse trying desperately to help.

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Review: Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ever since Stoner, I have been on the hunt for novels about small but meaningful lives. I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf earlier this year and felt it did that pretty well. I still mean to read the following two books in that group, but when I saw there was a movie made of this one I skipped the line to read it before watching.

Addie and Louis are both older people in Holt, Colorado, living alone, and Addie invites Louis over to spend the night. They get to know one another in a way they never had (both were friends with the spouses of the other but did not know each other that well) and don't hide their relationship, but then the town and their adult children have opinions about it. Addie's grandson comes to stay with her for a while, and most of the events of the book center around this event.

The movie was decent - Robert Redford is a good Louis although I'm not sure I'd cast Jane Fonda as Addie (but now I can't picture anyone else.) There is a scene in the book that I wish they'd kept in the film because I would have liked to see Robert Redford navigate a situation where his body failed him, but in that way the book feels more intimate than the movie, a little more raw and honest.

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Review: Nobody Cries at Bingo

Nobody Cries at Bingo Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I had Lindy Pratch on the podcast, she mentioned this book in passing as one of the books her book club had read and liked recently. I requested it from interlibrary loan on impulse!

This is a series of autobiographical fictions, not quite short stories that are self contained but a series of scenes from the life of the main character, who is largely the author. Dawn Dumont grew up on the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, and most of this book focuses on her childhood, from having to accompany her mother to bingo to navigating the very complex social hierarchy of the playground. There are some very hilarious parts, in fact I can still laugh over the college visit in the cabbage sweater.

But to me what is most impressive is the very authentic voice - the naivete of a young girl who knows a lot about her world but does not really fully understand the external forces. She does her best and can be pretty stubborn at times, but I felt like I knew her by the end of the book!

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Review: Elmet

Elmet Elmet by Fiona Mozley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I saw this book on the Man Booker Prize long list, I ordered it from the UK. It sounded like just my thing and had a beautiful cover! My expectations weren't met, exactly, but I still think I would read whatever the author did next. Some of the observations she had other characters make, like when Vivien compares their father to a whale, were rather thought-provoking and unique.

The only other page I marked is a few chapters later, when the narrator is reflecting on the whale analogy after his father hugged him upon his return home (and this is a good example of the writing):
"As soon as he had shaken off his boots, his Goliath arms pulled me into an embrace and I wondered what it would be like to touch a real whale, and knew that despite what Vivien had said, Daddy was both more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean. He was a human, and the gamut upon which his inner life trilled ranged from the translucent surface to beyond the deepest crevice of any sea. His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees."
So that's beautiful writing, to be sure, but it also serves to slow down the pace substantially, and as such I found myself frequently setting the book aside to read something else.

I like how she describes places. I was less interested in the people, unfortunately. I kept getting confused as to the gender of the narrator, although later on in the novel that seemed more intentional maybe. I read the character as female until he started being addressed with a male name and then felt confused! Ha.

This kept reminding me of Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, although the tone of it isn't as ominous, but in a similar way where a father shapes a world for his children to live in, isolated from the rest of the world, their only reality. He builds a home for them on property he doesn't own, although that too is revealed later in the book to be quite a bit more complicated than this guy just being a hermit. And it isn't as if they are entirely isolated, so there is a tension between the life he would like them to have and the reality surrounding them.. he has to work, and is a fighter for money.

Ultimately I would be disappointed to see this one win the prize, because I never connected with it.

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